Interview: Rowan Joffe on Reinventing a Classic with “Brighton Rock”

Although it’s commonly said the best thing about most remakes is that they lead audiences to rediscover the original, Rowan Joffe’s stylish retelling of “Brighton Rock” is one that could invite them right back as a study in great contrast. Naturally in the mood to revisit things, I thought I’d partially republish this interview I did with Joffe at last year’s Toronto Film Festival on the eve of the new film’s stateside release where we discuss how the writer/director who is not a fan of remakes came to reinvent the Graham Greene adaptation for a new generation. Here are my original thoughts below:

It's easier to think of "Brighton Rock" as a remix rather than a remake of the 1947 thriller that starred Richard Attenborough as an amoral gangster who must romance a witness to a murder he committed in order to keep her quiet. Based on the Graham Greene novel, it was ripe for the treatment since, in spite of a restoration that caught some headwind in recent years, "Brighton Rock" remained a crafty little noir that went criminally underseen outside of England where it is beloved, especially since it contains one of the most clever endings perhaps ever devised.

That the ending takes on a more somber tone in Rowan Joffe's version is significant since "Brighton Rock" can no longer be as black and white as it once was, in a literal and figurative sense. Splashed with ruby reds and navy blues, the film has the vibrancy of the late '50s England as well as nods to its repression, with the lush cinematography of John Mathieson crisply evoking the contrast. But the additional hues aren't restricted to what the actors are wearing, but what they're feeling as well. "Control" star Sam Riley's ruthless thug has the baby face of his predecessor Attenborough and equally deviant, but benefits from a more thoroughly explored relationship with Rose (Andrea Riseborough), the witness who was once portrayed as angelic and uncomplicated in the original and appears here as naïve and hopelessly devoted.

Surrounding his young stars Riley and Riseborough with the veteran presence of Helen Mirren, John Hurt and Andy Serkis, Joffe's debut is as accomplished as they come, reinventing Greene's investigation of love and violence in a town known for their dynamite (hence the title). Following the film's premiere in Toronto, Joffe sat down to discuss why he tackled a British classic for his first directorial outing, strengthening the film's female lead and why he hopes his version of "Brighton Rock" isn't the last.

BrightonRock2 Without spoiling it, the original film has such a wonderful ending and you were able to bring a more somber tone to that and to the film as a whole. Was that integral in updating the story for modern audiences?

Oh yes, I think it is going back to the source in one very specific way, which is that in the end of the book, Greene alludes to the sainthood of Rose. In other words, you have a Catholic writer who I interpret is alluding to ability to suffer or even die, or even suffer eternal damnation if you believe in that, for something she believes in, and the thing that she believes in is Pinkie's love for her. Now, you have to take a view as an audience about whether or not that is a total delusion or whether or not there was at least a spark, the possibility of love in Pinkie and I happen to believe the latter. Partly because we know that Greene himself quoted the [Vivien Dayrell-] Browning poem as the perfect epitaph for his whole oeuvre and that poem contains a line referring to the tenderhearted murderer.

I'm not saying I portrayed Pinkie as a tenderhearted murderer because he is a ruthless psychopath, but I am saying that the way we invested in Rose from the screenplay on was informed by the grandeur that that character has at the end of the book. And that is not a grandeur that was pursued by the filmmakers of the original Boulting Brothers' movie, simply because if they evidently weren't interested in pursuing that line. We are. We have and Andrea Riseborough has delivered a character of tragic stature and I think that's probably what you're getting from feeling like the movie might be perhaps more emotionally complex or richer than you were anticipating. Although some critics have said my movie is not as subtle as the original or not as subtle as the source material, which is fine because the movie is incredible and the book is also incredible, so if I've fallen short, there we are.

The screenplays that you've written so far are known for their subtlety and when you know you're going to direct a film, does that change what you do as a screenwriter?

By trying not to let that influence the screenplay because I think a screenplay needs to stand absolutely and entirely on narrative merits and if you're going to start putting stuff into the script that are really directorial decisions, that's fine, but what you're going to do is muddy the waters a little bit and you're no longer going to be able to judge whether what you have is purely in terms of cinema narrative a successful entity, so I try and keep those separate.

The way they play into each other is in the reverse of what you're suggesting, which is directing something you've written is very different from directing something you haven't, simply because you know those characters and that world more intimately than anyone else on the set. Now, a director who hasn't written his own script, if he's a good director, would also know the world and the characters more intimately than anyone on the set. The way that it helped me specifically was as a first-time director knowing the characters and the script to the extent I did gave me confidence and also I think probably gave very experienced actors like Helen Mirren and John Hurt confidence because it meant they weren't just entrusting themselves to a guy who may or may not be a good director. They were entrusting themselves to a guy who may or may not be a good director, but at least had written a good script.

BrightonRockSamRiley It may be random, but why did you want to pursue "Brighton Rock" for your directorial debut?

Well, you're right, to a certain extent, these things happen in an evolutionary way. Some things survive, some things don't and it's not necessarily part of an overarching strategy. But in this case, what happened was I was offered a chance by Studio Canal, who owned the property of "Brighton Rock," to do a remake and I said I didn't want to do a remake because A, I didn't like remakes and B, I don't want to commit dramatic suicide by trying to remake what many people believe is one of the best British movies ever made.

But I did pick a copy of the book "Brighton Rock" off the shelf and blew the dust off and started to read it and I fell in love. And when you fall in love with something or someone, you start to act irrationally and I ended up pursuing the insane course, but the passionate course of saying well, why don't we adapt the book?

My justification was the book is a great work of literature, so like a Shakespeare play, it can sustain more than one adaptation. When you go and see one director's version of an Arthur Miller play, you don't call it a remake of the other director's version. And I believe Greene's book is so rich, so iconic, so complex that it could probably sustain another "Brighton Rock." I'd love to have seen a Terrence Malick "Brighton Rock" or a Martin Scorsese "Brighton Rock" and I have no doubt they would've been better than mine.

But I suppose I was young enough and had very little to lose and was maybe stupid enough to tread on hallowed ground that those extraordinary directors have revered too much to tread on. Whether or not I get away with it, I don't know. It may be the last feature I ever make. [laughs] But it's certainly one I've loved making and I'm crazy about the story and if I hadn't been able to make it, I would've had to have curled up and die. And that's what gets you through two years of moviemaking.

What was your reasoning for switching the era it was set in – the original novel was set in 1939?

We wanted to bring something new to the table. We didn't want to set it in '39 because of the Boulting Brothers movie and that would've felt too close to a remake. Also, 1939's a very, very long time ago and it almost feels like a foreign country to a contemporary audience. What's so interesting about "Brighton Rock" is A, it tells us nothing about the sociology or culture of 1939. You know, we were poised on the brink of war and there is nothing in the book that even mentions that, so I didn't feel the narrative was tied to that era at all. In fact, what's so extraordinary is a book written in 1939 about a teenage kid wielding a razor blade.

BrightonRockAndreaRisborough1 Now, that to me feels like a contemporary story. So I tried to tell it contemporary, but that didn't work because you can't have a character like Rose existing in a world full of television and Internet and everything else because her innocence becomes unbelievable. [Setting it in] '64 gave me a chance to make a movie that felt more contemporary, but still had the innocence that was required to tell not just Rose's story, but a story about a world on a tipping point. A world in Greene's words was "suspended between two great eternities" and at the time I was writing it, it was the time when the banks were collapsing, the tsunami had just happened and there was a real sense that the world itself was kind of poised on a fork in the road between a future that was something desirable and a future that was something hellish.

To that extent, again, I felt that the movie had a lot to say to audiences now and the fact is most people of my generation or younger haven't seen the original "Brighton Rock" and they won't and I'm not sure that Graham Greene as cantankerous and brilliant and critical as he was would have totally crucified me for wanting to make a movie that would've brought his story alive for a whole new generation.

And you're totally right, the transformation of Rose, to me, is what I loved the most. How did you go about fleshing out the character?

I think there's something slightly misogynistic about the treatment of Rose in the original movie, if I'm honest. I kind of feel like she's an idiotic character who has it coming to her and I don't believe that's the Rose in the book. The Rose in the book has tragic grandeur and as I say, it was partly my wanting to honor that grandeur and it was partly Andrea Riseborough's extraordinary power as an actress that I think has given us a movie that is, in some ways, Rose's story.

"Brighton Rock" opens in New York at the Angelika Film Center and the Lincoln Plaza Cinemas and in Los Angeles at the Landmark. Additionally, it will be available nationwide on video on demand on August 31st.

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